Brooklyn Jewish Celebrities - William Rolland

William
Rolland

American actor and theatre owner
William Rolland

William Rolland and his Million-Dollar Theatre
(later called the Parkway Theatre)
1768 St. Johns Place, Brooklyn, New York

William Rolland and his Million-Dollar Theatre

William Rolland

William Rolland

WILLIAM ROLLAND’S EARLY YEARS

William Rolland was born on July 24, 1885 in Vitebsk, White Russia. His parents were merchants of clothing. He learned in cheders and later privately. At the age of fourteen he became an employee in a manufacturing business, where he worked for around five years. Being an active member of the “Bund,” Rolland during the First of May was arrested and put under police supervision. And because of this, he fled to America, where he worked delivering newspapers to subscribers, and then he became a life-insurance agent.

Out of love for the stage, he joined Joel Entin’s “Progressive Dramatic Club,” where he used to perform as a declamator.

In 1906 he returned to Russia and was very active there, that Dr. Zhitlavsky chose him as a Duma deputy. In order to create a way to gain money for the elections, he arranged several productions, and he performed at that time as “Moshe Magid” in David Pinski’s “Family Zvi,” under Sholem Anski’s direction. Soon thereafter, he returned to America, and there he married the actress Pauline Hoffman.

Through this he became excited about Yiddish theatre, but his first connection with professional Yiddish theatre began initially in 1916, when he became a cashier for Max Gabel in the New York City’s Lipzin Theatre, where he worked until 1920. In 1921 he was lessee of the Liberty Theatre, where he engaged Clara Young to play. In 1922 he was manager in Gabel’s [Mount] Morris Theatre. In 1923 he again returned to Russia and brought to America with his partner Boris Thomashefsky, the Vilna Troupe.

About this Alexander Asro, a member of the Vilna Troupe writes:

” … Not in a barrel hat, nor with a great artistic volume as had his partner, he met the Vilna Troupe. Meeting the ship, there stood before us a young man with a very intelligent appearance, in elegant, non-screaming clothing, with a charming, wide laugh, a loving smile, and still with a tender voice, saying ‘Welcome, friends, Vilner. I am happy to see you.’

This friendly reception of this noble man destroyed our nervousness and Mr. Rolland satisfied us at the Hotel Larage, which he had prepared for us on the same street, on Broadway, He also rented the ‘Nora Bayes’ Theatre for the Vilna Troupe. As a father cares for his children, thus, our dear Rolland was concerned about all the conveniences.

For us … He has not been in his theatre for days, only for our rehearsals. He loved to look and follow with great interest our work preparation.

In our historic night, when the first production of our ‘Vilna Troupe’ in New York (Dybbuk), our brother Rolland was with us behind the stage, kept us, not let us anybody disturb us, God forbid, and after the final curtain, when the walls of the theatre were shaking from the loud applause, our friend Roland was a happy man, a touch of joy and success. Running into myself and (his wife) Alomis’ wardrobe, grabbed our hands and pressed them hard, He wanted to say something, but could not … So big, bursting tears stood in his radiant black-blue eyes.”

WILLIAM ROLLAND AND HIS DREAM FOR A YIDDISH THEATRE

Here you will find short articles about his theatre, interspersed with text from the unpublished autobiography (1969-70) of Yiddish composer Sholom Secunda (in italics), who composed for Rolland for a time.

From the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, March 19, 1927

PLANS FOR JEWISH THEATER FOR BROWNSVILLE SECTION

William Rolland , business manager of the Jewish Liberty Theater, Inc., and prominent in the advancement of Jewish dramatic enterprises, has purchased a large plot of ground in Eastern Pkwy., between St. John’s Place and Howard Avenue, on which he has announce he will build a theater to be devoted to Jewish plays. He estimates it will cost $1,000,000, including the land. The new theater will be located in the heart of the Brownsville section. It will seat 1,800 persons and contain a stage equipped for large theatrical productions, as well as accommodation for vaudeville and moving pictures. Harrison G. Wiseman, architect, is preparing the plans for the building. The contracts for the purchase of the plot were signed today in the office of Kugel & Telsey, attorneys, and the structure will be built for Mr. Rolland by the Empire Construction Company.

While “My yiddishe meydl (My Jewish Girl)” was reigning at the Liberty Theatre in Brooklyn, William Rolland was building the first million-dollar Yiddish theatre, not on the Avenue in New York, but in Brooklyn on Eastern Parkway. The theatre was to be ready for the coming season., and William Rolland was going to produce the “extravaganza” operetta. I used to pass with my my car everyday, to and from the Hopkinson Theatre. I saw the theatre “grow” brick by brick. It was hard for me to believe that such a tremendous edifice would be ready in time, but newspapers began carrying advertisements:

Parkway Theatre

photo: Parkway (formerly Rolland) Theatre, 1940. Courtesy of the NYC Municipal Archives.

“William Rolland is opening his box office a few doors away from the new theatre till its completion. He is already calling tickets to organizations and theatre parties, and all performances. Next week we will announce our star of the Million-Dollar Theatre.”
From the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, June 24, 1928

LAY CORNERSTONE OF THEATRE TODAY
Yiddish Playhouse in Eastern Parkway to cost $1,000,000

Yiddish drama will be given new impetus today with the laying of the cornerstone of the new $1,000,000 Rolland Yiddish Theater, Eastern Parkway and St. John’s Place. More than 3,000 persons, including leaders in all walks of life, will attend the ceremonies.

Named for William Rolland of 1245 Eastern Parkway, the playhouse will be dedicated to his ambition, the production of plays of Yiddish origin to depict the color and spirit of his race.

Today’s ceremonies will be the realization of the dream of a boy whose first job, when he came to this country in 1903, brought him six dollars a week as cashier in Max Gabel’s theater. In his playhouse, which will seat 1,652, Mr. Rolland intends to portray works of native authors in the native tongue.

On the cornerstone laying committee are John H. McCooey, Supreme Court Justice Lazansky, Hyman Shorenstein, Alderman Walter S. Hart, Fire Commissioner John J. Dorman, Judge Gustave Hartman, C0unty Judge Algeron Nova, former Alderman A.I. Shiplacoff and former Assemblyman Charles Solomon. B. Charney Vladeck, Yiddish journalist, will be master-of-ceremonies.

[more from the Eagle the following day] … Enclosed for preservation in the cornerstone are copies of the Eagle and other Brooklyn newspapers, $100 in gold, and photographs of celebrities of the Yiddish stage.
… The cornerstone was laid by by Betty Leif-Rolland, daughter of William Rolland, after whom the theatre is named.

The architects, engineers, electricians, painters, all guaranteed that the theatre would be ready in time for the opening. The announcement came out in the newspapers. “The Million-Dollar Theatre Will Open its Golden Portals on the 25th of September 1928, with Michal Michalesko, in Sholom Secunda’s new operetta, “The Song of Love.'” 

From the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, September 25, 1928

ROLLAND YIDDISH THEATER ON EASTERN PARKWAY OPENS

The dream of a poor immigrant boy of 25 years ago was fulfilled last evening when the new million-dollar Rolland Yiddish Theater opened at St. John’s Pl. and Eastern Parkway.

The new theater is architecturally very attractive.

Twenty-five years ago, William Rolland, in whose honor the theater has been named, then a penniless youth of eighteen, arrived here. Today he is recognized as one of the leading figures of the Yiddish stage in America. His first job here was as cashier for a Yiddish theater in the Ghetto. Here he first dreamed of building his own theater, and last night his dream was fulfilled.

Rumors were rampant as to who the star was. Who is the lucky one? It will have to be someone colossal, gigantic, stupendous, the most. On Tuesday (It is a Jewish superstition that Tuesday is lucky) there was the front page of the “Forverts (Forward newspaper)”! And it carried the picture of Michal Michalesko … Rolland was energetic. He knew what he wanted, and he went after it.

Rolland started putting his company together. I

William Rolland and Lebedeff Levine

Aaron Lebedeff and Lucy Levine, in an unidentified production, circa 1930s.

suggested the young and talented prima donna, Lucy Levine, who had been in Philadelphia with Goldinburg, then to the Second Avenue with Molly Picon. As William Schwartz before her, she was all too ready to leave New York, tired of singing “second-fiddle” to Molly, with no special billing, going nowhere fast. Opposite Michalesko her parts would be much bigger, and so will her billing. Money comes with the poster. Lucy already was one of the “new crop” of prima donnas: young and pretty, she played the piano and had a fine voice — coloratura soprano.

Rolland had also engaged a young comedian named Jack Rechtzeit, who had make his mark at the New York National Theatre with Aaron Lebedeff. As a shole, the entire company was well-balanced. Most of the performers sang and danced, and that was what is needed for an operetta.

 Rolland and Michalesko had great faith in the writer, Louis Freiman. He had written several plays for Michalesko before, and it suited his taste and his talent. Before the 1927-28 season ended, I was handed the play. I was writing the music. They liked the play. I reserved my opinion. “What shall we call our first play? Let’s give it a romantic name that will entice the ladies. The gentlemen will follow,” said Michalesko. Our first-born was named “The Song of Love” (Dos lied fun libe.)

The opening production was an elaborate operetta, “The Song of Love,” by Louis Freiman and Sholom Secunda. Michal Michalesko, who starred in the Palace Jewish Theater in Chicago, was brought here as leading man, and will also direct the shows.

The Rolland Theatre greatly publicized the “Million-Dollar Theatre,” and it was so new that it wasn’t even completely finished yet. The walks to the theatre and leading to the stage were covered, not with red carpets, but with boards and newspapers. But the occasion, nevertheless, was very festive. The entire theatre profession was invited. Those who could, came; the newspaper people, Yiddish and English, came. They were invited. All came, as no one wanted to remain on the outside, looking in. They wanted to be among the first to see the Million-Dollar Theatre, hear its star, Michal Michalesko, and listen to the music from “The Song of Love.” The theatre, inside and out, dripped with gold. The costumes, the scenery, the lighting effects, even surmounted the biggest theatre in New York, just when you thought that your possibly could not see anything more outlandish in the Yiddish theatre. The curtain went up in the second act, and in front of your eyes half the stage, the entire chorus with the dancers disappeared before your eyes. How? Via electric magic. A button was pushed, and an elevator took them all down into a cellar. What they did in the cellar, we did not see. The stage was in complete darkness, not longer than two seconds. When the lights went on, just as before, the blackout, the continuity of the play (such as it was), went on. Did it add anything to the success of the play, you ask? Well, I wish I could say that it did. It didn’t!!! So for the first few weeks, people paid good money to se their idol, Michalesko, and a “disappearing cast.” It was the talk of, well, of Brooklyn. But once the secret was no longer a secret, the audience stayed away in droves. Had the overhead been less, it would have weathered the storm. Under the top-heavy circumstances, we tried to rescue ourselves with a new play. Louis Freiman was readying another operetta called “Senorita.”

from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, September 15, 1929

GEHRMANS FOR ROLLAND

Misha and Lucy Gehrman, Yiddish stage pair and favorites with Brooklyn theatre-goers, who last season appeared in “The Eternal Mother,” a drama in which they broke all records for both runs and attendance, have been placed under contract by William Rolland, owner and builder of the million-dollar Yiddish playhouse that bears his name.

According to the contract, Mr. Gehrman is to replace Michal Michalesko as both star and director of the

Rolland Theatre

Rolland Theatre

Rolland Theater and will be featured with Mrs. Gehrman in a repertory of Jewish dramas and musical comedies next season. The company of Yiddish players are now being assembled to support Mr. and Mrs. Gehrman the entire season. The opening attraction yet untitled, is scheduled to inaugurate the season on Oct. 5.

The season ended for the Rolland Theatre with financial losses. Still not discouraged, William Rolland already was planning the next season, 1929-1930 for his “Million-Dollar Theatre.” Misha and Lucy German concluded their season in Chicago and expressed a desire to come back. And why not to Brooklyn? It had been good for them in the past with the operettas, “Mashka” and “Margarita” at the Hopkinson Theatre. They made history with great successes only two short seasons ago. Now, coming from Chicago, the Germans had a brand new repertoire: dramas and melodramas. William Rolland with his Million-Dollar Theatre, and Misha and Lucy German with their past success and promise of a future, became partners. I, Sholom Secunda, was re-engaged to write the music and conduct the orchestra. It was hailed as a very artistic and commercial combination. Both Rolland and German had good taste, and if not diverted too much from the outside, they will do good business. Lucy German was a seasoned performer with more charm than beauty, wanting to play nothing but leading ladies, “love interests,” whether it was the drama, the comedy, or the operetta. Lucy, as we indicated, was not young. She was middle-aged. But she had good fortune. The older she got, the better looking she became. Lucy did not have a voice. Yet she could sing a number well. Lucy could cry her way through any number, and it would conclude in thunderous applause. It never failed. Misha German, for his first operetta to open at the Rolland Theatre, chose a William Siegel play called, “Katya’s khasene (Katie’s Wedding).”

The season ended for the Rolland Theatre with financial losses. Still not discouraged, William Rolland already was planning the next season, 1929-1930 for his “Million-Dollar Theatre.” Misha and Lucy German concluded their season in Chicago and expressed a desire to come back. And why not to Brooklyn? It had been good for them in the past with the operettas, “Mashka” and “Margarita” at the Hopkinson Theatre. They made history with great successes only two short seasons ago. Now, coming from Chicago, the Germans had a brand new repertoire: dramas and melodramas. William Rolland with his Million-Dollar Theatre, and Misha and Lucy German with their past success and promise of a future, became partners. I, Sholom Secunda, was re-engaged to write the music and conduct the orchestra. It was hailed as a very artistic and commercial combination. Both Rolland and German had good taste, and if not diverted too much from the outside, they will do good business. Lucy German was a seasoned performer with more charm than beauty, wanting to play nothing but leading ladies, “love interests,” whether it was the drama, the comedy, or the operetta. Lucy, as we indicated, was not young. She was middle-aged. But she had good fortune. The older she got, the better looking she became. Lucy did not have a voice. Yet she could sing a number well. Lucy could cry her way through any number, and it would conclude in thunderous applause. It never failed. Misha German, for his first operetta to open at the Rolland Theatre, chose a William Siegel play called, “Katya’s khasene (Katie’s Wedding).”

BillboardTHE STOCK MARKET CRASH AND THE GREAT DEPRESSION
German’s success at the Rolland Theatre would have been even greater if not for that “cloud burst,” that infamous October 29, 1929, that “Black Thursday.” The walls caved in on “Wall Street,” and the world toppled. It was the crash that was heard around the world. The Million-Dollar Theatre was no exception. there is a Hebrew saying: “Tzures rabim-chatzi nechama” (Troubles that befall all is half as painful to bear, sometimes as if it were the disaster of yours alone.) In other words, if everyone is in the same boat, the unbearable is bearable. People simply stopped going to the theatre. They stopped living. Many jumped to their death from rooftops. It was estimated in astronomical proportions. It is an accepted fact that the least economical setback, the theatre, is the first to suffer the consequences. The commodity of bread outweighs all others. Everything was at a standstill. Most theatres closed. We made a valiant effort playing for as little wages that could keep body and soul together. Half-wages was the best week we had. No wages was the order of the week. The theatre closed.

A MEYSE (STORY) …

There is a story. I don’t know how many in our profession are aware of it. Jennie Goldstein was very kind-hearted. When William Rolland was undertaking that enormously costly task of building his Million-Dollar Theatre, he was not ashamed to ask for help (Anyone who would give anything, he would be willing to accept.) Among those who contributed “something” was Jennie Goldstein. And, what was that little “something”? Jennie Goldstein gave her diamond tiara. How did she come by this diamond tiara? For her twenty-fifth anniversary, her then husband, Max Gabel, had a “coronation” on the stage of the Public Theatre, and in front of the entire audience “crowned” his wife Jennie, the “Queen of his Heart.” As an expression of love and appreciation, he gave this diamond crown to her. Now when William Rolland asked for help, to enhance and enrich the world of Jewish theatre, Jennie Goldstein, good-natured, as usual came to the “fore.” Out of friendship to Mr. Rolland and to the profession, she presented Rolland with the crown saying, “Mr. Rolland, help yourself to its value. I have confidence that when you are able, you will be able to pay me back.” It was no secret then. The secret remains to this day, whether or not “Le Rolland” every paid her back. Some say yes, some say no. Jennie did not say anything. From that you may gather that Jennie Goldstein was a star in more ways that one. The Million-Dollar Theatre was born in an unlucky year.

“Yes, that was a ‘Black Thursday,’ but there were other such black days: Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and the rest of the week. Neither Jennie Goldstein with “Step Sisters,” nor Menachem Rubin with Sholem Aleichem’s “200,000,” plus Sholom Secunda, plus all the king’s horses, nor all the king’s ransom could bail out William Rolland, nor any other Yiddish theatre, out of the doldrums. What does a theatre producer do? He tries another play. After “200,000” he produced “The Street Singer”, now with Arthur Tracy, but starring Menachem Rubin, co-starring prima donna Bella Mysell, and together they made a fine leading pair, but nothing compensates the mood of the impoverished country. The theatre closed with a great deficit, owing wages to actors, directors, choreographers, ushers, Sholom Secunda among them. Oh yes, the only ones to be paid were the stagehands. If they hadn’t …. beware!!! “Next season,” Rolland thought. “Next season I will do it right! Next season, back to the ‘anointed,’ the dean of the Jewish composers, Joseph Rumshinsky. A brand new company. We …we … must have brand new ammunition.” Good luck to you, Mr. Rolland!

My light was not extinguished. William Rolland still made plans to re-open for the coming season. His box-office didn’t fare any better. His season wasn’t better, but his Million-Dollar Theatre had the capacity to sell to “benefits,” and his “boiler” was much “newer,” and in the severe winters the severe critics are not as cold-hearted as when they sit in theatres with mufflers covering their ears, to keep them from freezing. A brand new star combination [appeared] at the Rolland Theatre–Aaron Lebedeff and Leon Blank. They had been a successful “duo” at the National Theatre on the Avenue. Everything there was dated “B.C.” (Before the Crash.) We lived in hope. The country was coming out of its deep mourning. “After those crash victims who jumped from the roofs, we had nothing but hope…and that’s a lot”….

from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, September 25, 1931.

RUSSIAN ACTOR’S DEBUT

Menachem Rubin, Russian actor-director of the Soviet government theater, brought here by William Rolland, will be introduced at a reception concert at the Rolland Theater on Sept. 28. He will offer a program of international folk songs and dramatic interpretations.

Menachem Rubin, Russian actor-director of the Soviet government theater, brought here by William Rolland, will be introduced at a reception concert at the Rolland Theater on Sept. 28. He will offer a program of international folk songs and dramatic interpretations.

It was 1931, the second year aster the disastrous crash of Wall Street. Business all over America was still bad. The theatre business was not better. The Rolland Theatre opened with Louis Freiman’s “Step Sisters.” It did not draw the desired audience that Rolland had hoped for, and to which Jennie was accustomed. Who was William Rolland’s “ace-in-the-hole”? Menachem Rubin. Rolland had not given up his dream, his desire for the “cultural and commercial” hand-in-hand theatre. He hoped to accomplish that with Menachem Rubin, who at that time was playing in Warsaw, Poland in his own production of Sholem Aleichem’s “Tsvey mol hundert toysend” (200,000), which was also known as the “Big Winner,” one of Sholem Aleichem’s very fine comedies. Maurice Schwartz had played it in some years before Rubin had brought it to America. Menachem Rubin added much of his own, and William Rolland was placing a great deal of hope in his new star. Rubin was reputed as a good dramatic star, as well as possessing a fine voice, a baritone, of fine operatic quality. Before long, Rolland was notified of Menachem Rubin’s arrival. The three of us–William Rolland, Louis Freiman and myself, went to the boat to greet Rubin. Our first impression of the new arrival… Well, a competition for Michal Michalesko, he was not, all his attributes not withstanding. We hoped that Mr. Rubin would make it up in “culture,” if that would be an attraction at the box office. We had some very fine singers in the Yiddish theatre. Besides Michal Michalesko, there was Irving Grossman, William Schwartz, Leon Gold. Singers for the operetta are of the utmost importance. Now we were even more curious to hear Rubin’s voice. Does he really possess the voice of such great repute? “Chevra (fellas), let’s take Mr. Rubin to his hotel room so he can make himself comfortable. After that we will then show off our ‘Million-Dollar’ Theatre, where Mr. Rubin will appear. I am certain that Mr. Rubin has not seen its equal in Europe, not even in the Soviet Union from where Mr. Rubin had come prior to his coming to Warsaw.”
From the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, May 21, 1939.

MICHALESKO RETURNS TO CELEBRATE HERE
… Long one of the leading romantic favorites of the Yiddish stage, Michalesko had the theater built for him by William Rolland, who opened it in 1929 as the Rolland Theatre. Following three successive seasons, the house changed hands a number of times — and in the meantime was changed to the present name — the Parkway Theater — until Nathan Goldberg and Jacob Jaobs, actor-managers, leased it in 1935 and have since operated it as a legitimate Yiddish playhouse. Having just concluded their own successful season, Goldberg and Jacobs invited Michalesko to be a guest star at their theater this weekend, to make his return debut on the local Jewish stage this year in “His Last Hour” and be present at the tenth anniversary celebration of the very theater he opened a decade ago. Michalesko, who just returned here after a season in Chicago, appears at the head of his own company.

The saying, “Not all is gold that glitters,” was never truer. The Rolland Theatre was a Million-Dollar “Pandora’s Box.” It opened problems that I found myself too weak to surmount. It plagued me through the years, and finally forced me to divorce myself from the profession that had given me all the economic comforts and popularity throughout the world of Yiddish theatre. That paved the way, at times, to even “luxury” for my family, and social position of some sort that many of my colleagues came to envy. The truth is that all this physical comfort was accompanied by mental anguish. My battle for “bread” was easier to conquer. My emotional struggle for aesthetic elements that I was hoping to attain, that was thwarted at every turn.

William Rolland, in whom I had recognized a cultural element at the outset of our encounter, had succumbed to the “Egel HaZahav” (the Golden Calf)–the Million-Dollar Theatre. The reasons why I found it difficult to accept the “tried and trite” formula was many-fold.

Chaim Ehrenreich characterizes Rolland this way:

“William Rolland died Friday morning in a hospital in Dallas, Texas, far from the Yiddish theatre world in New York, from the world that he surrendered to over the tens of years of his life, as one of the recognized and respected, beloved Yiddish theatre managers. … Actors and colleagues, and also writers have loved him. … He was a watchman, and an honorable man. His attitude possessed value, importance, not only to his fellow men, only to myself. His greatest virtue was his physical and moral cleanliness. … from all the Jewish impresarios, William Rolland was the most festively dressed and the most celebratory … They was devoted to him. … He not only took from the theatre. He also carried on. He enriched the Jewish Brownsville with a new Yiddish theatre building that for years carried his name (“Rolland Theatre”). For that he, together with Thomashefsky, brought over the famous Vilna Troupe, which registered a colorful chapter in the history of the Yiddish theatre. When Clara Young was young and popular with the New York audience, Rolland with her opened the “Liberty” Theatre in Brownsville and made that dense Jewish area as a center for Yiddish theatre.

… William Rolland was a good and honest business leader.”

Courtesy of Steven Lasky, museumoffamilyhistory.com

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